Causes and clinical features of childhood encephalitis: A multicenter, prospective cohort study


Philip N Britton, Russell C Dale, Christopher C Blyth, Julia E Clark, Nigel Crawford, Helen Marshall, Elizabeth J Elliott, Kristine Macartney, Robert Booy and Cheryl A Jones

Clinical Infectious Diseases 2019 ciz685, published online 1 August DOI: 10.1093/cid/ciz685


We aimed to determine the contemporary causes, clinical features, and short-term outcome of encephalitis in Australian children.


We prospectively identified children (≤14 years of age) admitted with suspected encephalitis at 5 major pediatric hospitals nationally between May 2013 and December 2016 using the Paediatric Active Enhanced Disease Surveillance (PAEDS) Network. A multidisciplinary expert panel reviewed cases and categorized them using published definitions. Confirmed encephalitis cases were categorized into etiologic subgroups.


From 526 cases of suspected encephalitis, 287 children met criteria for confirmed encephalitis: 57% (95% confidence interval [CI], 52%–63%) had infectious causes, 10% enterovirus, 10% parechovirus, 8% bacterial meningoencephalitis, 6% influenza, 6% herpes simplex virus (HSV), and 6% Mycoplasma pneumoniae; 25% (95% CI, 20%–30%) had immune-mediated encephalitis, 18% acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, and 6% anti-N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor encephalitis; and 17% (95% CI, 13%–21%) had an unknown cause. Infectious encephalitis occurred in younger children (median age, 1.7 years [interquartile range {IQR}, 0.1–6.9]) compared with immune-mediated encephalitis (median age, 7.6 years [IQR, 4.6–12.4]). Varicella zoster virus encephalitis was infrequent following high vaccination coverage since 2007. Thirteen children (5%) died: 11 with infectious causes (2 influenza; 2 human herpesvirus 6; 2 group B Streptococcus; 2 Streptococcus pneumoniae; 1 HSV; 1 parechovirus; 1 enterovirus) and 2 with no cause identified. Twenty-seven percent (95% CI, 21%–31%) of children showed moderate to severe neurological sequelae at discharge.


Epidemic viral infections predominated as causes of childhood encephalitis in Australia. The leading causes include vaccine-preventable diseases. There were significant differences in age, clinical features, and outcome among leading causes. Mortality or short-term neurological morbidity occurred in one-third of cases.

Related Research Areas

  • Clinical research and infection prevention
  • Public health research